On-the-Record Press Gaggle by NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby
1:41 P.M. EDT
MS. SHARMA: Hey, everyone. Thanks for joining us. Sorry we’re running a little bit behind. I’m going to turn it over to Kirby, who has some thoughts at the top, and then we’ll try to take as many questions as we can.
So, Kirby, over to you.
MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Saloni. I think as you guys have all been aware, we’ve been warning since July that Iran would be planning to sell UAVs — unmanned aerial — unmanned aerial vehicles — to Russia for use against Ukraine.
In September, as we said, Russia transferred UAVs that it had purchased from Iran into Crimea to use in its war against Ukraine.
So today we can confirm that Russian military personnel that are based in Crimea have been piloting Iranian UAVs, using them to conduct strikes across Ukraine, including strikes against Kyiv in just recent days.
We assess that Iranian military personnel were on the ground in Crimea and assisted Russia in these operations. Russia has received dozens of UAVs so far and will likely continue to receive additional shipments in the future.
Furthermore, in light of Russia’s ongoing supply shortages, we are concerned that Russia may also seek to acquire advanced conventional weapons from Iran, such as surface-to-surface missiles that will almost certainly be used to support the war against Ukraine.
There’s extensive proof of their use by Russia against both military and civilian targets there. Yet both Iran and Russia continue to lie about it, denying that Iran is providing weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine. Iran and Russia, (inaudible), they can lie to the world, but they certainly can’t hide the facts.
And the fact is this: Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons that are impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine — in fact, that are killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.
So, let’s be very clear: The United States is going to pursue all means to expose, deter, and confront Iran’s provision of these munitions against the Ukrainian people. We’re going to continue to vigorously enforce all U.S. sanctions on both the Russian and Iranian arms trade. We’re going to make it harder for Iran to sell these weapons to Russia. We’re going to help the Ukrainians have what they need to defend themselves against these threats. And we’re going to continue to stand with our partners throughout the Middle East region against the Iranian threat.
We’re also working with allies and partners, including at the United Nations, to address Iran’s dangerous proliferation of weapons to Russia. Yesterday, in New York, we began that process with Ukraine, the UK, and France to hold Iran accountable for its provision of UAVs to Russia. This closed meeting in the U.N. Security Council kicked off a process under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 — I know you’re all familiar with that with respect to Iran — and it was led by a panel of experts.
Today, the EU and the UK also slapped new sanctions on Iranian individuals and entities that are supporting Iran’s support for Russia’s war. As you know, we have done that already. We will continue to impose and vigorously enforce sanctions on those who aid Iran’s support for Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Let me just end with this: We’ve said this for months, that Russia had plans to turn to Iran for support. And this is another sign of just how brutal Mr. Putin is willing to be and just how isolated both he and Iran are from the rest of the world.
But bottom line is: We don’t believe it’s going to change the course of the war. The Iranian people have shown in the midst of the air attacks that they’ve suffered over the last few days that they are standing firm and resilient, that they’re not going to allow it to change their determination to push back on Russian aggression.
The Ukrainian armed forces have proven that it’s not going to change their calculus in terms of the territory that they are trying to claw back.
And the other thing that’s not going to change is our determination to continue to provide Ukraine with the security assistance and financial assistance that they’re going to need to defend themselves.
And with that, I’ll take questions.
MS. SHARMA: Great. Let’s go to Aamer Madhani from AP. You should be able to unmute yourself and ask your question.
Q Hi. Thanks, Saloni. Hi, John. On these details that you just unveiled on Iran’s involvement, can you say,
even ballpark, how many personnel and type of personnel from Iran are in Crimea? And why does Russia need actual Iranian on-the-ground help with the UAVs? And, I guess, finally, how does this action impact the administration’s look at — feeling on returning to the JCPOA? Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Okay. I don’t have a number of — yeah, I don’t have a number of how many Iranians are in Crimea, but we do know it’s a — there’s a relatively small number that are. And the answer for why there is — it’s a — it’s a good question.
First of all, these are systems that the Russian armed forces are not familiar using. And these are organically manufactured Iranian UAVs, and the Russians just don’t have anything in their inventory. So, it follows that they would need a little training on how to pilot these things.
Number two, there were operator — well, I’d say operator and system failures early on where either they weren’t being piloted appropriately and properly and were failing to reach targets, or the systems themselves were suffering failures and not performing to the standards that apparently the customers expected. So the Iranians decided to move in some trainers and some technical support to help the Russians use them with better lethality.
And was your question is this relat- — how is this going to be related to the JCPOA? Or was it just a general JCPOA question?
Q How is this directly — does this impact the administration’s decisions continue to keep the possibility of returning to the JCPOA open?
MR. KIRBY: Okay, I gotcha. Our focus right now, quite frankly, Aamer, is not on the JCPOA. We are way far apart with the Iranians in terms of a return to the deal, so we’re just simply not focused on that right now. They had demands that were well in excess of what the JCPOA was supposed to cover.
And again, so we’re just — we are not focused on the diplomacy at this point.
What we are focused on is making sure that we’re holding the regime accountable for the way they’re treating peaceful protesters in their country, and supporting those protesters. And we are focused, as I said in my opening statement, on making sure we’re holding Iran and Russia accountable for this — for these arm sales.
And there are existing UNSCR resolutions, like 2231, that give us the authority to continue to sanction Iranian defense industry and that kind of thing. As a matter of fact, I mean — just to level set, I mean, we’ve sanctioned companies — defense companies in Iran and one individual that is involved in the research, development, production, and procurement of UAVs and UAV components. And that would include the Shahed series of drones, which we know are being used inside Ukraine right now. Those are the ones that I’m sure you’ve seen — the tri-wings.
And we’re going to continue to impose those sanctions, as well as explore new sanctions, as we did yesterday in the U.N. So there’s going to be more to come on that.
MS. SHARMA: Thank you. Let’s go to Josh Wingrove from Bloomberg. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hey there. Thank you so much for doing this. John, forgive me, it might be my line crackling a little bit. Can you just — you’re saying that the Iranians and the Russians are both jointly piloting these remotely from Crimea. I want to be sure I heard you right on that. And if you could elaborate a little bit more on what you think the next steps will be, that would be great.
And just to pile on totally, I wondered if you folks had a comment on an indictment last night of two Russian nationals who were charged with evading sanctions on smuggling U.S. military technology and Venezuelan oil, and the link to the company RUSAL and whether there’ll be a further U.S. response to that. Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Okay. I’m sorry, I was writing your questions down. What we — the information we have is that the Iranians have put trainers and tech support in Crimea, but it’s the Russians who are doing the piloting. That’s our assessment at this time. So I think I’ll leave it at that.
On next steps, I think I covered that in my opening statement. We’re going to continue to — to hold both Russia and Iran accountable. Certainly, we’re exploring new sanctions. We’ve already imposed sanctions. You saw the EU and the UK today also slap some sanctions on Iran and individuals and companies. So there’s growing international support here to
to impose accountability on Iran for this provision.
But the other thing — next steps, I mean — the other thing — and I said it in my opening statement, and I guess it’s easy because we say it all the time; it’s considered a throwaway line, and it’s not: We’re going to continue to make sure that Ukraine has the capabilities they need to defend themselves.
And so, the Defense Department is looking actively right now at potential air defense solutions for the Ukrainians. I can’t tell you today what that’s going to look like, when that — you know, we’re going to be able to move additional air defense capabilities to Ukraine. But I can assure you that DOD is well aware of the threat and is working hard to see what they can do to help the Ukrainians deal with the threat.
In addition to us looking inside the lifelines — pardon the old Navy term — we’re — we’re looking outside the lifelines, and that means we’re working with allies and partners who also have air defense capabilities at their disposal that might be willing to provide them to Ukraine.
And just last week, you saw Germany and Spain agree to pony up some short- to medium-range air defense capability that the Ukrainians can use.
So, we understand the threat they’re under and how these drones adjust that threat. And we’re going to keep working to make sure that they get what they need.
And on your last question, it’s going to sound like I’m dodging you, but I promise I’m not. I really need to defer you to the — refer you to the Justice Department on something that — that is not something that we, here at the NSC, would speak to. That’s really better in their purview.
MS. SHARMA: Thank you. Let’s go to Patsy from Voice of America. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Thank you, and thanks for taking my call. So, on the Iranian drones, John, can you speak about whether there’s any indication that Belarus is somehow also involved either in the transfer or operation or training or what have you of these Iranian drones by Russia?
And is this part of — you know, like, can you also speak a little bit in terms of the renewed Russian offensive operations threat on the northern front? I mean, do you see the indication that the threat of Russian offensive from Belarus is indeed growing?
And if I may, just one question on Taiwan. Can you confirm on reporting that U.S. and Taiwan are in talks for a joint production of weapons? I know that Vedant spoke briefly on this yesterday at State, but if you can add anything else that’d be great. Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: On the last question, I can’t add to that. I have nothing more to say on that. What I can tell you is that
we remain committed to helping Taiwan defend itself, and we’re
we’re always going to be open to — to considering new ways to do that in concert with Taiwan. But I don’t have anything specific on that — on that particular report.
On your — on your other stuff: On Belarus, no indication that Belarus is involved in either the transfer, training, or operation of these — of these drones.
In terms of the — pardon me — the military footprint in Belarus, Belarus has served throughout the entire eight months of this war as the staging base or bases for Russian forces, pre-invasion and even during the war when they would use Belarus as a logistical and sustainment support, not only to support troops that were in Ukraine, but to allow those troops when they were retreating and repositioning after the lost battle of Kyiv to refit themselves in Belarus. So, Belarus has certainly provided material, moral, and tangible support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
That said, we have not seen Belarusian troops actually in Ukraine fighting. And while we’re mindful of this new arrangement between Russia and Belarus to host more forces from both nations and to create sort of a territorial defense
apparatus as they — as they’ve talked about it, and to conduct exercises, it remains to be seen whether this constitutes some sort of major strategic shift by Belarus to get involved in Ukraine.
Frankly, Patsy, we just haven’t seen them take that next step. That doesn’t mean we’re diminishing the support that they’re giving and decrying it. Of course, we are. But we haven’t seen any indication that Belarus is willing to come in tangibly inside Ukraine and fight.
Now, one of the things that could be — could be the tactic here by this new association and territorial defense that they’re talking about is to try to see if they could
force the Ukrainians to apply manpower on that border as a defense mechanisms of their own. So, it could be an effort to just see if they could divert Ukrainian armed forces to that part of their border so that they can’t be used elsewhere in the Donbas or in the south, and that could be a tactic here.
But it remains to be seen. We’re going to watch this as closely as we can.
Your other question about the Russian offensives in the east: I think we need to keep this in perspective. Yes, both the east and the south remain kinetic battle fronts. The lines have not moved much in the last 72 to 96 hours. But that doesn’t mean they’re static. You know, there’s some shifts here there. Certainly there’s continued artillery fire and combat between units.
And I think you’re talking about that Bakhmut, which is in the — in the Donbas, specifically. And there is very active fighting going on in Bakhmut today, as the last couple of days. It’s largely being done through the Wagner group. This isn’t conventional Russian military forces. It’s these private military contractors. They’re the ones sort of spearheading these efforts. And the fighting is — has been real. It’s been — and it’s been close in some areas.
And if you had to point to one area in the Donbas where it looks like the Russians might be making a little bit of headway, it’s in that Bakhmut offensive. But it’s not clear what the ultimate goal here is, and it is certainly not — it’s not finished, and the Ukrainians are fighting very, very hard. And there’s no indication that this is somehow lost all of a sudden or that the Russians have some sort of breakthrough. I would I would be very careful going that far, in terms of speculation.
MS. SHARMA: Great. Thank you. Let’s go to Andrew Feinberg from The Independent. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hello, can you hear me?
MS. SHARMA: Yep. Yep.
Q Excellent. Thanks for doing this, John. The other day, Ben Wallace was in town. He met with Jake Sullivan. And the readout that your all put out was a bit anodyne. I’m wondering if you can share any more about what they talked about. Did he offer any assurances to the U.S. about the stability of the UK government, considering what had and has been happening in London? And is there any concern that continuing instability in London could affect any joint U.S.-UK or NATO efforts going forward on Ukraine or any other matters?
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I — I take the — I take the literary criticism of the readout. But I don’t want to go much beyond that.
I will just tell you this: that the focus of the conversation — at least here at the NSC, when he met with Mr. Sullivan; I can’t speak for the other discussions he had in town — was very much focused on Ukraine and what they’re seeing, what we’re seeing, and the support that each of us are giving to Ukraine. And that’s why that was so prominent in our “anodyne” readout.
It — boring as it might have been, it was accurate. So, I think I just leave it at that. There wasn’t — there wasn’t discussion about internal British politics; it was about — it was about Ukraine. And we were — we were happy to have the visit, happy to have the conversation.
And as for what goes forward, the — it’s up to the British people to determine, you know, what their next government looks like, and we respect that. We also respect the fact that Great Britain is a terrific allied partner, and we have no expectation that there’s going to be any change in that partnership or any change in the strength of our resolve to continue to help the Ukrainian people.
MS. SHARMA: Thank you. Let’s go to Vivian Salama. Sorry, one second. I’m just having — okay, you should be able to unmute yourself now.
Q Thanks so much, Saloni. Hey, Kirby. How are you? Thanks for doing this.
I wanted to ask you just a follow-up to your answer on air defense systems and things like that. Just specifically, the Ukrainians have been pressing for some Iron Dome-like technology for several months now, and those conversations have kind of ebbed and flowed. Obviously, Israel has been involved in that just because it has, sort of, exclusive rights to that technology so far.
And so, I wanted to see if you could update us on where those discussions stand. You know, how likely is it, given especially what we’ve seen just in the last week with the drone strikes, that we would see something like an Iron Dome-like technology, you know, given to Ukraine anytime soon? Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: As I said, I don’t have any updates on specific capabilities that the United States might be willing to provide. DOD is working on this, and I don’t want to get ahead of that process. But I do know that they are, in fact, looking hard at what — what’s in the realm of the possible, including, as I said earlier, what could be possible from allies and partners, because they sometimes have organic air defense capabilities that they — you know, that they might be willing to provide.
On Israel — and actually, I’ll back up. On any of these decisions, they’re sovereign decisions. These are decisions that these nations have to make and should be allowed to make in their own time and in their own way. And we a hundred percent respect that. That’s why Secretary Austin stood up this Ukraine Contact Group. The whole idea of the group, which I think has met six or seven times now, is that nations come together and do what — do what they can. And they make these decisions on their own.
And part of the calculus with which they make these decisions is preserving their own national security. So, we respect that. And Israel should have the right to speak to what they’re willing to do or not willing to do without judgment, because it’s got to be a decision that they make. And — and we want to respect that process.
MS. SHARMA: Thank you. Let’s go to Ryo Nakamura from Nikkei. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hi, thank you very much for taking my question. Yesterday, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gilday, indicated that China could invade Taiwan before 2024. Does the White House agree with the Admiral’s assessment? Is there any change in the past assessments that China might be capable of seizing Taiwan by 2027? Thank you very much.
MR. KIRBY: Hey, Ryo. I would just say, look, we monitor this — monitor this as best we can. And I’m not going to get into intelligence assessments one way or the other.
I would just tell you what we’ve said time and time again: There is no reason for this to erupt into conflict. We — nothing has changed about our approach to Taiwan, our adherence to the One China policy. Nothing has changed about the fact that we’re going to continue to, as I said in the previous question, look for ways to help Taiwan with its self-defense capabilities. That work will continue.
And we don’t want to see the use — the status quo across the Strait changed unilaterally. And we certainly don’t want to see it changed by force. And there’s absolutely no reason for that to happen since there’s been no change in the way we’re approaching Taiwan and Taiwan’s self-defense.
MS. SHARMA: Thank you. Let’s go to Nadia from Al Arabiya. You should be able to unmute yourself now.
Q Hi, guys. Thank you so much for doing this. President Obama said recently that he regretted not supporting the Green Movement in Iran enough in 2009. In retrospect, he said it was a mistake.
John, how can this administration avoid making this mistake twice?
MR. KIRBY: I certainly won’t speak to the Obama administration. I can’t do that. I can only speak for President Biden and for this administration. And you heard in the well of the U.N., shortly — like right after those protests began and Ms. Amini was killed — that President Biden made clear where we stand on human rights and the right of free and peaceful expression.
We have been crystal clear since the beginning that the movement now — it started with young women, but it’s grown beyond that — but that these — that these Iranian citizens should have the right to peacefully protest policies and dictates that they find objectionable or repressive without the fear of reprisal and without the fear of violence.
And we backed up that support by sanctioning the morality police as well as other Iranian intelligence officials involved in cracking down on these protesters. And we are exploring additional accountability measures for the regime.
We have been nothing but candid about where we stand on the (inaudible) peaceful protests and particularly in Iran. And we’re going to continue to do that.
You’re going to — you’re going to see us unapologetically come out in favor of this peaceful protest and continue, as I said, to explore ways to hold the regime accountable.
MS. SHARMA: Thank you. Let’s go to Keth from France 24. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Yes. Thanks for taking my question. I had a question about the — about Finland and Sweden joining NATO and the two holdouts still — Hungary and Turkey. Is there any effort from the administration to sort of engage with these two countries to sort of speed up the process or get them to sign off on this?
MR. KIRBY: We are — we — I don’t have any specific conversations to speak to. We’re obviously in touch with all our NATO Allies, as you would think we would be throughout this process. But these are, again, sovereign decisions that these — that these allies have to make. And we appreciate that.
That’s the way the system works. You have to have unanimous consent by all — all 30 Allies. And — and so that process is ongoing.
Look, we’ve made clear where we stand on this. We believe both nations would be terrific additions to the Alliance. They’re modern militaries. They’re militaries that are very capable. We, in the United States, are very comfortable working with them, as we have in the past. And they would bring a tremendous set of additional defensive capabilities to the Alliance.
So we’ve spoken to this, and most of the rest of the Alliance has as well. These nations, though, they have their own processes to follow. They have their own deliberations to make.
Sovereignty matters. Even inside NATO Alliance, sovereignty matters. And so we want to respect that.
But we’ll continue to engage all our NATO Allies on this going forward, again, with the strong hope and expectation that Finland and Sweden will soon be able to join.
MS. SHARMA: Thank you. Let’s go to Steve from Reuters. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hey, thank you. Hey, John, what’s the status of the review of Saudi Arabia and the consequences for their oil output cut? What — I haven’t heard anything about this all week. What’s — what’s happening there?
MR. KIRBY: Yeah, it’s ongoing, Steve, and it has been since the President made the decision that we’re going to do it.
Thus far, most of the process of reviewing the relationship and looking at options going forward is internal here to the national security team and inside the interagency. But we expect to be able to broaden that out to include members of Congress, you know, when they come back to town.
So we’re not going to rush this. I don’t have a timeline for you. I’m certainly not going to speak to ongoing deliberations. But I can assure you that that process of review has begun and we’re working it internally.
But again, we look forward to being able to have conversations with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, quite frankly, at the earliest opportunity.
Q Thank you.
MS. SHARMA: Thank you.
Sorry, guys, I’m — I’m not as good with the technical stuff as I should be.
Okay, let’s go to Laura Kelly from The Hill. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hi, thank you so much for taking my question. I just wanted to go back on sanctions on Iran for the drone sales to Russia. Has the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran related to these drone sales? Or is it mostly being focused on the U.N. and snapping back U.N. sanctions on Iran? Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: No, I mean, we have imposed new sanctions, including on an air transportation service provider for its involvement in the shipment of Iranian UAVs to Russia. So, specifically on this issue, we’ve already done that.
We’ve also sanctioned, as I said earlier, companies and even one individual that was involved in the research, development, production, and procurement of Iranian UAVs and components, as I said earlier, including specifically the Shahed family of drones that we know are being used — some of which, anyway — we know are being used in Ukraine.
So, no, I mean, the sanctions we put in place are — have been specifically on this — on this issue. And we’re going to continue to look for additional opportunities going forward.
MS. SHARMA: Okay. Thank you. I think we just have time for one more.
MR. KIRBY: And I would just add that I think the Treasury — correct me if I’m wrong, Saloni — but they can go to the Treasury website and see these sanctions and see for themselves, you know, the names of the companies and the individuals. It’s all on the website.
MS. SHARMA: That’s right.
All right, so let’s do our last question. Felicia Schwartz from the FT. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Thanks so much. Hi, John. Just following up on the question about the Saudis, this Saudi-sponsored business conference next week that people call “Davos in the Desert,” I’m wondering if you’re asking or encouraging American companies not to attend as part of your reevaluation of the Saudi relationship.
And then just one more, if I may. Ben Wallace announced that, on September 29th, there was an incident over the Black Sea when a Russian jet released a missile near a UK spy plane. The Russians said this was a technical malfunction. Do you believe that explanation? Is this something you talked about or that Jake and Ben Wallace talked about when he was here?
MR. KIRBY: I’m not going to get into more detail on the conversation with the Minister of Defense. I’ve already kind of addressed that issue. I’ll let the British talk about their aircraft and the — and what — and the incident.
I would tend to believe the British version over whatever the Russian version is on anything. So I’d leave it there.
And then on the first question: No, we are not talking to U.S. companies in advising or discouraging them to not attend the “Davos in the Desert.” We are not — we are not doing that. These are decisions that, as private companies, they can make for themselves.
MS. SHARMA: Great. All right. Well, thanks, everyone, for joining. Talk to you soon.
MR. KIRBY: Thanks, everybody.
2:14 P.M. EDT